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Luke Zelon (right) and the rest of the Santa Monica High School football team go through an extensive yoga workout with instructor Jason Battung (photo by Brandon Wise)

SAMOHI — It was hard to take yoga seriously at first. 

When quarterbacks coach Jason Battung first introduced yoga to the Santa Monica High School football team he knew that more than a few players might think it strange.

They did.

When Battung gathered the players for the first couple of sessions there were more than a few giggles. He knew that winning over high school-age young men wasn’t going to be easy. He knew that some may consider it uncool, but he knew that it would benefit them in the long run.

“Everybody thought it was weird,” senior wide receiver Chris Featherstone said. “After we realized this is helping us be more flexible, we all opened up to it.”

Featherstone said that it helped him gain more flexibility and explosiveness. But, aside from the physical benefits, he said that it helps in harder to quantify ways.

“Our chemistry is already set,” he said. “We’re good with it.”

Battung couldn’t be happier.

After coming to the football program he wanted to add a new wrinkle to their workouts. Yoga has helped countless pro and college players and he figured it could help the Vikings on and off the field.

On the field, Battung said, it helps increase athletic performance by training muscles to operate loosely. It also helped players make better cuts during drills.

He believes that the yoga regiment has helped players rejuvenate muscles quicker by allowing blood and oxygen to flow more freely in their bodies.

But more importantly, Battung sees the biggest difference in the players’ mindset.

He called it mental toughness.

“It is easy when you are distracted and you are playing video games,” Battung said of many of his players’ typical mindset. “I challenge them to sit in stillness. Sometimes, they can’t do it.

“We kind of challenge them with that. Makes their minds focus in.”

He hopes the real benefits are reaped during the fourth quarter of games this fall. He holds steadfast to the belief that practicing yoga will help them cultivate that focus. He wants to see that pay off by limiting off-sides penalties and other mental errors that often sink high school teams.

Battung, 30, has come to this conclusion through years of battling on the football field and expanding his mind and body on a yoga mat.

After playing college football at the University of Pennsylvania, he found himself searching for something to keep him in shape. He tried weights, but realized that he wanted more. He’d spent years in weight rooms while chasing his football career, but that type of pounding wasn’t for him anymore.

Friends first recommended yoga as a means to scratch his fitness itch. It didn’t take long for Battung to take to it straight away in 2001.

“It has been a huge thing in my life across the board,” he said. “Once I got back to football it was a no-brainer.”

Battung’s path to football nirvana started when he moved to the area a few years back. He fell in love with Westside life and quickly gained employment in the burgeoning yoga movement. He taught privately around Venice and Santa Monica, meeting people along the way. Eventually a friend referred him to an elective program at Samohi.

Thinking that this could help advance his yoga practice he began volunteering on campus two days a week this past school year. He fell headlong into the program and even noticed a few Viking athletes in his classes, but not many football players.

During his time volunteering on campus he heard that new football coach Travis Clark was looking for a coaching staff. After meeting with Clark he quickly assumed the role of quarterbacks coach and helped the team through spring drills.

It was then that he began introducing yoga to some of the players on the side. Battung said that Clark asked him to add the practice to the team’s weekly training schedule.

Part of the reason the program has taken off is thanks to the city’s connection to yoga.

“I would be foolish not to admit that there is great exposure to it in these communities,” he said. “Santa Monica is the yoga capital of the world.”

Aside from the occasional snicker or two when the program began four months ago, it appears that yoga is beginning to take hold of at least a couple Vikings.

“We may not have taken it seriously at first, but it is really helpful,” starting senior quarterback Garrett Safron said. “I have to be a good student, [Battung] demands it.”

daniela@smdp.com